Panelle are Sicilian chickpea fritters, popular as a street food snack. They featured in the Palermo sequence of Rick Stein’s Long Weekends television programmes. In the programme, Rick cooks panelle with Duchess Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi in her aristocratic palazzo. Rick is clearly charmed by the Duchess and starts to chat about Il Gattopardo, (the Leopard), the iconic Italian novel chronicling Sicilian life and society during Italy’s tumultuous period of reunification. Later Rick helps cook the panelle, which mainly involves vigorous stirring and heating of a thick gloopy paste made from ceci (chickpea) flour and water. Given his credentials as a chef, he coped fairly well with this rather undignified task, especially when Duchess gently reprimanded him about his stirring.
When the panelle were finally fried and ready to eat, Rick suggested they would go well with a beer, perhaps a cheeky ploy to discover if Duchesses drink beer. Indeed they do, and scene ends with raised glasses and a ‘Saluti!’
These video clips can come in handy for the home cook; their visual cooking demonstrations can often be far more useful than recipes alone. For instance, I have seen many recipes for panelle with wildly different quantities of water, ranging from twice the volume of water to flour to four and a half times the volume. One recipe says to add ‘sufficient’ water. I first used about twice the volume and scuppered the mix after it quickly set like an artists’ plaster. I then tried four times the volume of water, which works much better. Some recipes instruct us to cook the panelle briefly, whilst others recommend cooking at least 40 minutes: until the mixture ‘comes away from the side of the pan’, like polenta. My first batch used the ‘side-of-pan’ method, but when I spread it out on a baking tin to harden it had already started to set on the spatula, resulting in much waste and broken and crumbly panelle. That is when I went back to the video clip to check on the consistency of the Duchess’s paste. I could see the mixture was the texture of a loose semolina pudding rather than a stiff polenta, a texture achieved with about four times the volume of water to flour and less time on the stove.
After cooking the panelle on the stove, it must be set. The usual method is to spread it out on a shallow baking tin. But the Duchess put her mixture into an old oil can, removing both ends of the can so the panelle paste can be pushed out and cut with a knife into neat discs. I decide to follow the Duchess, swapping a large tin of ground coffee for an oil can.
I flavour my panelle with parsley and basil flowers scented with lemon. The dried herbs come in paper-wrapped, tied bundles from Casanova & Daughters’ (Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden). I wanted to find new recipes for their basil flowers and remembered that it’s traditional to serve panelle with lemon. So there we have it: a nod to an Italian Duchess for a foolproof method of cooking panelle, inspired by Casanova and Daughters’ lemon-scented basil flowers.
NB: You can stay in apartments in Duchess Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi’s palazzo and attend her cooking classes. Follow this link: www.butera28.it